Last year was the start of something special in the South. Atlanta stormed onto the scene with impressive form that barely dipped throughout the rigorous MLS season. Having a world renowned manager in Tata Martino did not hurt either. The fans sold out two different venues last season and set the MLS attendance record. Atlanta's offense had plenty of firepower as they scored the second most goals in MLS behind only Toronto FC. Ironically, Atlanta couldn't score when they needed to as Columbus Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen saved two PK’s to help eliminate Atlanta from MLS Cup contention.
Offseason Grade: A-
Did Atlanta get better? Quite possibly. Atlanta signed 18-year-old Argentinian attacker Ezequiel Barco for an MLS record $15 million transfer fee. (Fans will have to wait a little longer to see their new signing as Barco is set to miss 4-6 weeks to begin the season with a quad strain.) They also added long time Portland Timbers man Darlington Nagbe, Franco Escobar from Newell’s Old Boys, Jose Hernandez from Caracas FC, and MLS veteran defender Sal Zizzo.
Atlanta did not escape the transfer window unscathed, though. Winger Yamil Asad is off to DC, which is potentially a big loss for the Five Stripes. Asad's seven goals and 13 assists last year will need to be replaced, which will be a tough task for Nagbe who has only scored more than six goals once in his career (2013) and has never had more than seven assists in a season. Lastly, Carlos Carmona was sold to Colo Colo in Chile so that he could be with his wife and family. Anton Walkes and Tyrone Mears are also gone from the backline.
Key Player: Miguel Almiron
This one is easy, if Miguel Almiron does not perform, Atlanta United does not win games. He is the heart and soul in the middle of the pitch. He is the player opposing coaches focus on. Almiron had nine goals and 14 assists this past season, and he will need to continue contributing creatively for Atlanta to be successful in 2018.
The other big question surrounding Almiron is how long will he be with Atlanta United? He has not been shy about his desire to play in Europe, and many people think he may find a new home in the summer transfer window. Should he leave, Atlanta will have to hope that Barco has adjusted enough to MLS play to fill Almiron's void.
Best Case: Qualifying for Concacaf Champions League
Atlanta has asserted itself as a competitor in the Eastern conference, so challenging for one of those four spots is not out of the question. In order to qualify, they'll need to win the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the Supporters' Shield, the Eastern Conference or MLS Cup. The Eastern Conference is definitely the more difficult conference this year, but Atlanta United has the talent to push for one of those four spots if all things line up.
Bold Prediction: Atlanta will struggle to make the playoffs
Last season, Atlanta was the new kid on the block. They were hard to figure out, and the fact that there was not a whole lot of tape on them meant that teams couldn't study and prepare (although, strangely enough, D.C. United had their number all season long). Teams will be able to better prepare for Atlanta this year. Teams will likely sit, bunker, and make life miserable for the Atlanta United midfield. If opposing teams are successful, I could see Atlanta struggling to make the playoffs.